Friday, February 29, 2008

Take a Leap

Today is February 29th, otherwise known as Leap Day. It happens only once every four years, and it's sort of a chronological course correction. We say that it takes the earth 365 days to revolve around the sun, but in fact it takes 365 days and 6 hours. So once every four years, we've got an extra day to deal with. (Actually, that bonus time is not exactly 6 hours, either, leading some to suggest, if our system is to be really, really accurate, years divisible by 4000 should not have a leap day. To which others have replied, you really, really need to get a life.)

I don’t know about you, but my fascination with February 29th usually revolves around those poor souls who were born on this day. It’s hard enough only having one birthday a year, am I right? Try having one every four years! Plus, people born on Leap Day are called “leaplings”, which to me is just a half step away from them being tiny people with big ears and jobs that require them to sing.

But this year it also occurred to me, heck, on this unique day, why not do something unique? Why not take a leap, as it were? So, I and four of the other tertians got in a car this afternoon and drove down to Sydney to a great little pub called the Australian. We sat down at a table for dinner, got ourselves some drinks... and had ourselves a kangaroo pizza!



I guess you could say we took the whole idea of taking a leap a little bit literally…buh-dum-bump! I have to say, the whole experience made me a little jumpy. Hope I don't rue the day.

Actually, We were all very pleased with ourselves, until we asked the waitress if she’d ever had kangaroo and she said no, she hadn’t. But you’re Australian, we said. And she replied, Exactly.

So perhaps it’s a bit of a tourist thing to eat kangaroo. Hey, at least we didn’t demand Foster’s beer (which no one down here drinks. Also the phrase “shrimp on the barbie” is a complete fiction. Australians do use terms like “barbie” for barbecue or “brekkie” for breakfast, but down under they’re “prawns,” mate, not “shrimp”.) Undeterred we proceeded to also eat some saltwater crocodile (which is one of the many dangerous predators of Australia that I wish I hadn’t read about; on the other hand, knowing how deadly it was made the eating really quite satisfying).


We’ve had a great couple weeks of classes, and I’ll be blogging next week before we go away for our long retreat. Until then, hope you, too, have the chance to take some kind of leap. Trust me, it can be tasty!

Four Very Hoppy Tertians in front of the Sydney Opera House.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gone Fishing

The next couple weeks are very full with some workshops, so I won't have time to post as much as I have been. This coming week especially I probably won't be posting. Check back at the end of next week.

Having said that, one FYI and one more post.

The FYI: People have been asking me when we're doing our long retreat. I must say, I sense a certain impatience, as in, Lord, you've been there a month. When are you guys going to get down to business? It's a fair question. Our retreat will begin March 13 and go until April 13. We'll be out of Sydney at a place called Sevenhill, in the southern central part of the state (pretty near Adelaide on the southern shore). It's the place where Australians used to do their entire tertianship, so it's got a lot of history and makes for a neat connection with the older men of the Australian province. I'll provide more information about it as it gets closer, but yes, it really is a 30 day silent retreat!

The post:
I've been here a month and really not said too much about Australia itself. Not that I haven't wanted to. I actually have a list a mile long of interesting things I've wanted to share. (Like, how about this: the Australian Parliament began its session Wednesday by together reciting the Our Father. How's that for different than the US?)

(Or this: in Australia, the smaller monetary amounts are in coins: 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, one dollar and two dollars. And what's fascinating to me is, the dollar and two dollar coins are each smaller than the cent coins. 5, 10, 20, 50 each gets bigger than the last, then the one dollar is small again, but thicker, and the two dollar coin smaller still, but thick, too.)

But anecdotes aside, I just wanted to tell you a little bit about what I've learned about the country itself. (Most of which I got from a great book about every part of Australia called In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I highly recommend it; I will be stealing stories from it regularly. Thanks to Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Stan for giving it to me at Christmas.)

Australia consists of six states and two territories that function similarly to the District of Columbia. In the South East there's New South Wales (that's where Sydney is); Victoria is farther south still -- that's where Melbourne is, which is almost the same size as Sydney (about 3.5 mil). West of there is South Australia; farther west still is the massive area known as Western Australia. I'd say it's about one third of the country in size. (And given that the country is about the same size as the continental U.S., that's a huge honking tract of land.) Perth is the main city in South Australia; a lot of the rest is desert. One of the guys here was talking about how Perth is so vastly separate from most of the rest of the "civilized" country -- most of which occurs along the southeast shore (some call it the Boomerang Coast) -- that there was talk among some at one point of it seceding from the rest of Australia.

Anyway, east of Western Australia, to the north of South Australia, is the Northern Territory. It has an area of 523,000 square miles, about 20% of the whole of the continent. And in 1998 the citizens received the option of becoming Australia's seventh state. They refused. Apparently they enjoy the status they have. From what Bryson writes, the far north is quite tropical, lush. The big city is a place called Darwin (also called the "Top End"). I don't know how exactly it got that name, and the chances of me seeing it are quite low, but I love it just because it has that name Darwin. It's a great name for a town. The kind of place I'd expect to see all kinds of interesting creatures.

To the east of the Northern Territory is Queensland. And by the way, don't ask me why the one is called the Northern Territory and the other is called South (instead of Southern) Australia. Or why they never came up with names like Victoria or Queensland. Like Bob would be nice. Sort of goes with Victoria. Hello, this is Bob, and this is Victoria.

Anyway, east of NT is Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef is there -- I just read that it's equivalent in length to the entire west coast of the United States. Somewhere between 280000 and 344000 square kilometers. Also about a million different species of fish and aquatic life, many of which can kill you, or make you wish you were dead. (There are actually critters living in cone shells -- sea shells lying on the sand, we're talking about here -- that will poison you if you pick them up. There's a jellyfish called the box jellyfish that's the most deadly creature on earth. Though it lives only on tiny shrimp, and is only 6-8 inches long, its tentacles are each instant death for humans.

Don't let that put you off, though. They say the Reef is beautiful.)

The last state of Australia is Tasmania, which is little island on the southern end, south of Melbourne. On the right, a real Tasmanian devil.

From what I gather, this real Tasmanian devil does not spin at all. The Looney Toons of my youth were filled with lies. I feel totally cheated.

Darn thing looks more like a pig than a devil.

The last territory is the ACT -- Australian Capitol Territory. It's the District of Columbia of Australia, the land surrouding the capitol city of Canberra.

There's so much more to tell you, but for now it'll have to wait. Go read Bill Bryson's book, and I'll see you in a couple weeks with stories of Arthur Phillips, James Cook, Uluru and the great possibility that if you never hear from me again it's because I have been eaten by a saltwater crocodile.

Weekend Chasers

Couple things you might enjoy:

This is a video cut from an Australian TV show called Chaser's War on Everything. The show is a young, edgy Candid Camera/Punk'd, guys pulling stunts on both ordinary folks and authority figures. Last year the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Group (APEC) met in Sydney. APEC consists of 21 member countries with borders on the Pacific (so Australia, China, Russia, but also Mexico, the U.S., Canada.)
Like other organizations supporting globalization of workforce, it's drawn considerable ire from those who oppose such efforts. What's more, the event tied up a lot of the city, in part because President Bush was in attendance.
So, as a joke, Chaser's War drove a fleet of limos posed as the Canadian delegation (there was no Canadian delegation) to the compound where the leaders were staying, to see how close they could get to where George Bush was staying.

It turns out, they were able to get all the way in. (The fact that one of the guys in one of the limos was dressed as Osama bin Laden strangely never got noticed.)

The group got in a lot of trouble for the stunt; I understand they also earned enormous ratings.

The other thing is a poem from Garrison Keillor's NPR broadcast the Writer's Almanac:

All That Is Glorious Around Us
(title of an exhibit on The Hudson River School)

is not, for me, these grand vistas, sublime peaks, mist-filled
overlooks, towering clouds, but doing errands on a day
of driving rain, staying dry inside the silver skin of the car,
160,000 miles, still running just fine. Or later,
sitting in a café warmed by the steam
from white chicken chili, two cups of dark coffee,
watching the red and gold leaves race down the street,
confetti from autumn's bright parade. And I think
of how my mother struggles to breathe, how few good days
she has now, how we never think about the glories
of breath, oxygen cascading down our throats to the lungs,
simple as the journey of water over a rock. It is the nature
of stone / to be satisfied / writes Mary Oliver, It is the nature
of water / to want to be somewhere else, rushing down
a rocky tor or high escarpment, the panoramic landscape
boundless behind it. But everything glorious is around
us already: black and blue graffiti shining in the rain's
bright glaze, the small rainbows of oil on the pavement,
where the last car to park has left its mark on the glistening
street, this radiant world.

Barbara Crooker

Have a great weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Primary Addiction

Over the course of the last week or so Michael Gilson, another one of the American tertians, and I have been riveted to the news, greedy for every new tidbit about the results of the U.S. primaries. On Super Tuesday (our Ash Wednesday) the two of us were both on our laptops in the tertians' TV room, watching streaming video and listening to NPR, PBS, CNN and commenting on each update. Excellent use of an afternoon.

A funny story: On Super Tuesday, as the day wore on, I grew hungry (tertianship seems to make me very hungry, in fact), and I went to our kitchen to make a sandwich, but I could not find any lunch meat. I asked the cooks for some help in finding some, but they stared at me like I had three heads. I figured they must not understand the term "lunchmeat" so I tried "cold cuts", "sliced meat". They continued to stare very politely. Then one of them, Joanne, said to me -- "It's Ash Wednesday." Whoops. (Tell my parents and the Wisconsin Province, their boy is making them proud.)

So this week, after Obama swept the Potomac Primaries, Michael pointed out this surprising fact: if either Obama or Clinton wins every race from here on out by a 55%/45% margin -- which they probably won't, but if either of them do-- they still won't have enough delegates to be the official Democratic candidate.

Which means, it's all going to come down to superdelegates, most likely. A group I know little about. So over the last week or so I've been doing some research on them and the whole primary system, and thought I'd share a little of what I learned.

Superdelegates have not been around forever; the practice began after the 1968 convention, in which the decision as to who the candidate would be had to be decided at the convention itself. (They call this a "brokered convention".) While today this sounds a lot more interesting than our long, dreary, scripted-to-death conventions, the conventional wisdom after the 68 convention was the unpredictability and potential divisiveness of such a gathering was not good for the party. So, they added a set of non-elected delegates who represent the Democratic leadership and could guide the process along to a clear candidate before the convention. (The idea being that ideally these superdelegates add momentum to the frontrunner's campaign, so as to put him or her over the top.) The superdelegates include all Democratic Senators, Congressmen and Governors, former Presidents and Vice Presidents, fellow and former presidential candidates, members of the Democratic leadership, etc. The usual suspects.

And there's a lot of them. In fact, while superdelegates constitute only about 20% of those who attend a convention (796 out of 3253), they are a staggering 40% of the total delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, 796 out of a needed 2025. I haven't found anything that explains why the party has so many. In a bad primary cycle, such a large number could largely derail the democratic process by which a candidate is nominated. That, or at least the appearance of that, is the great fear today, along with the divisions and disenfranchisement that will result.

For now, we'll have to wait and see.

In my spare time, I have come up with one further thought on this topic: superdelegates should have to dress the part. Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Dianne Feinstein, don't you dare show up at the Democratic convention in a suit and tie or a pantsuit. I want to see capes, I want to see muscle suits, I want to see masks and tiaras.

Nancy Pelosi, leave the limo at home. We will send you a lasso, we will send you wrist bands, you get yourself into an Invisible Jet. It's the least you can do.

One citizen's dreams for the political process.

Sorry Day, Happy Day

Today, February 13th, 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, in his very first order of business as PM, issued a national apology for the country's past policy of taking Aboriginal children from their families.

For those of you wondering, wait, did I just read that right? Did he say that the country used to take away the native children from their families? Yeah, I did. It's one of the great shames of the country, akin in its way to the United States' attempts to exterminate its own Native Americans. Consequently, this moment of a national apology is an extremely important one in the history of this country, and so below I've given a bunch of different links and information on the "Stolen Generations", as those who were taken from their families were called.

If, like me, you're less a reader than a watcher, I want to really recommend this great 5 minute slide show with narration that the Sydney Morning Herald has done on exactly the issues I'm going to present below. It's really excellent.
If you like music, you might listen to "Sorry Song" by Australian Kerry Fletcher or watch "Took the Children Away" by Archie Roach, who was himself stolen from his family. It's really wrenching.

And above all I want to recommend watching Rudd's speech, too. I found it really quite powerful, and I think you will, too. Or you can read it here.

In a word, I'm very proud to have been here today and witnessed this.

The Lost Generations
From the very beginning of the history of settlement in Australia in 1788, it appears, much as in the United States, that European settlers viewed Aboriginal society as by and large uncivilized and unclean. And for this reason, as well as others -- including the desire on the part of some to wipe out Aboriginal culture and society -- at times Aboriginal children were taken from their families to be raised and educated/trained elsewhere. In the 19th century, this practice moved toward policy: between 1885 and 1969 somewhere between 45000 and 55000 children in the six states and two territories of Australia were taken from their families by government officials; in the peak years of the 1920s and the 1950s, approximately 1 in 3 Aboriginal children were removed from their homes. (By the way, I put this little report together from a bunch of sources online. Here's my main source. It's very user-friendly.)

In some cases, (such as is portrayed in the recent film Rabbit-Proof Fence) children were forcibly seized from their parents; such children and their parents tell of being literally ripped from one another's arms, sometimes never to see one another ever again. In other cases, parents were fooled into signing forms that gave up custody. Many if not most of the children were of mixed descent, having had white fathers but living with their aboriginal mothers. The fact that they had any white blood constituted automatic grounds for taking them away. Other stolen children, however, were Aboriginal on both sides.

Some such children were adopted by white families or put in foster homes. Others were placed in state and religious (including Catholic)-run institutions to be educated so as to assimilate in "mainstream" society. The boys were taught the skills to become tradesmen or farm laborers, the girls to become domestic servants. And though the children were removed supposedly for their own good, in some cases the living conditions of the institutions were themselves wretched; furthermore, much as happened throughout the United States, Aboriginal children were not allowed to learn the customs of their own culture, not allowed to speak their own languages. They were allowed to see their parents sporadically, if at all. (There are cases, in fact, in which children were told that their parents had given them up for adoption,and thus never saw them, only to discover as adults that this had been a complete fabrication.)

If you'd like to hear from some Aboriginals who were taken from their families, this site has short reflections, poetry and artwork by some of the victims. And at this site, you can find some excerpts from the "Bringing Them Home" report done on these children, which includes in bold many stories of the children. Here's one excerpt:
When I first met my mother - when I was 14 - she wasn't what they said she was. They made her sound like she was stupid, you know, they made her sound so bad. And when I saw her she was so beautiful. Mum said, `My baby's been crying' and she walked into the room and she stood there and I walked into my - I walked into my mother and we hugged and this hot, hot rush just from the tip of my toes up to my head filled every part of my body - so hot. That was my first feeling of love and it only could come from my mum. I was so happy and that was the last time I got to see her. When my mum passed away I went to her funeral, which is stupid because I'm allowed to go see her at her funeral but I couldn't have that when she requested me. They wouldn't let me have her.

If you'd like to some more extensive stories or interviews with Aboriginal people, you might look here.

Today, as I said above, these generations are known as the "Stolen Generations", and up until the 1990s the crimes that had been perpetrated against them and their families were not a subject of significant attention by the country at large. Then in 1990 the federal government of Australia, concerned with the high number of Aboriginals committing suicide in prison, did a survey of 100 Aboriginal prisoners. They found that 43 of the 100 had been taken from their families as children. This led to a two year, government study called "Bringing Them Home", which in 1997 found that the country's treatment of the Aboriginals constituted acts of genocide and called for such things as financial reparations for the crimes that had been commmitted, assistance to reunite families and a national apology.

For 10 years, the Liberal government of then-Prime Minister John Howard dismissed this idea of a national apology. In 1996 Howard decried what he called the "'black arm band' view of history", and spoke of a "need to guard against the re-writing of Australian political history", among other reasons so as "to ensure that our history as a nation is not written definitively by those who take the view that Australians should apologise for most of it." In 2000 the party's Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, declared ""There was never a generation of stolen children." "Bringing Them Home", Herron asserted on behalf of the government, had exaggerated the numbers and ignored the supposedly many situations in which these removals were for the good of the children.

The people of the country itself, however, seemed to feel different. May 26, 1998, one year to the day after "Bringing Them Home" was presented to Parliament, organizations began "Sorry Day", in which people gathered together all over the country to express their sorrow and grief over what had happened and attempt to enable further reconciliation to occur. Sorry Day has occurred every year since then, and hundreds of thousands of Australians have participated in it. On May 28, 2000 alone, over 250,000 walked across the Sydney Harbor Bridge in support of indigenous Australians.

With the ouster of Howard's Liberal party and the election of Kevin Rudd and his Labor party last fall, the possibility of a national apology resurfaced and today, finally, occurs. Still, as Howard's minister's words suggest, this idea of a national apology is not universally embraced in Australia. There are those who feel the practice really was in the best interests of the children, an attempt to remove children from situations of destitute poverty or other disfunction. The Sydney Morning Herald from yesterday offered an editorial by a former Liberal minister attempting to justify the past practices (and Howard's government), as well as one praising the apology by a current minister (and also former lead singer of the Australian band Midnight Oil).

As I did some research online about all of this, I found this quote from Australia's former Governor-General Sir William Deane that seemed to capture why many Australians feel this apology is necessary:
True reconciliation between the Australian nation and its Indigenous people is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgement by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples. That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel personal guilt. It is simply to assert that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government. Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul.

As an American, I can't help but wonder if the United States government will ever be willing to face its own history with Native peoples, as well as its current activity with prisoners of war, with a similar amount of honesty and contrition. Deane's last line certainly is haunting: where there is no room for national shame alongside flag-waving and national pride, can a living, national soul survive?

Buddhists in Training

I don't think I mentioned it when we left for Gerroa, but on the way down there we stopped at Nan Tien Temple (literally, Southern Heaven Temple), which is the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern hemisphere. If you compare the shot above with some of the pictures I posted from China, it probably doesn't seem that different. You have the same structure, same brilliant red roof, complete with the little figures on every corner.

And inside, wondrous Buddhas whose placid smiles draw you in, call you to gratitude and quiet contemplation.

What's really great about Nan Tien, though, was the mini-buddha statues to be found all around the campus, each in a different pose. For instance, there's touch your toes baby buddha (right).

There's mini-buddha builds a snowman (left).

This one's my favorite.

And this one pretty much scared us all. It's creepy axe wielding buddha (left).

Look at those eyes.
I don't care how peaceful the Buddha is supposed to be. That guy's a house of rage.

Anyway, moved by the Spirit (as good tertians should be), a number of us felt invited to join in...

Baby Buddha leads Chun in the Beauty Pageant wave.

Dennis and Buddha stretch to the right.

Rudi pledges allegiance to the Buddha.

Ansgar does the lean.

And I accompany the "Someone call a doctor, I threw my back out" buddha.

All in all, an afternoon well spent!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Meet the Tertians

A new week begins! I thought I'd start it by introducing you to my fellow tertians and our instructors.

Starting from the top left, Chun Ng is from the Malaysia/Singapore region (this picture comes from his camera, too; thanks, Chun!); he has been working in his region's Jesuit offices and doing retreats. Adrian Lyons, our tertian director, has worked in internal Jesuit administration and as a teacher, a spiritual director and a writer. He's originally from Melbourne. Radek Robak is from Poland, where until recently he had been working in a high school he helped begin.

German Jesuit Ansgar Wiedenhaus came to tertianship after working on the staff of his province's novitiate. Mars Tan, from the Philippines, just finished a degree in environmental engineering, and has also been doing formation work with young Jesuits in Manila. Woo-Bae (pronounced Oo-Bay) Sohn is from South Korea; he'd been working as assistant to the provincial of South Korea previously. And the last guy on the end, Rytis Gurksnys, is from Lithuania. Before he started tertianship, he finished a degree in organization development at Benedictine University in Chicago. Rytis and I were actually ordained deacons together in Cambridge, Mass., in October of 2002.

In the front row, Michael Gilson is a high school teacher from the States; he spent the last five years working at Brophy Prep in Phoenix. Their soccer team just won the state tournament -- Go Broncos! Dennis Recio is also from the California province; he's been teaching literature at the University of San Francisco. Dennis and I have now lived together in three different stages of formation -- a year together in philosophy and two years together in Cambridge at LaFarge House. It's a real blessing to be with someone who knows you so well.

Joseph Sobb, third from left, is from Sydney -- at age 65, he's the oldest tertian in the world right now. I think he might even be the oldest tertian ever. ( Just kidding; Joe's actually the assistant director of the program and the rector of the Canisius College community; his background is scripture studies, teaching, spiritual direction and parish work.) To his right, Raymond Manyanga has been serving as a parish priest in the Eastern African Province. He's from Tanzania. When he smiles you know that all will be right in the world. (see below). Rudi Hartoko has also been working as a parish priest; he's from Indonesia; and I'm the guy in the sweatshirt on the bottom right.

Ray and I, stylin' in our fog-gear hoodies.

All told, the 13 of us represent 10 countries and five continents. Over the last couple weeks, we've spent a lot of time just telling stories about our lives -- where we come from, how we entered the Society, the things we've done and experienced, the worlds we've seen. Each one, a lens on a different part of the world. It's been amazing to listen.

Ray and Mars smile but wonder what the heck I have stuffed in my sweatshirt. (Answer: Chocolate. A lot of it.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reasons I Hate my Brother-in-Law #1

When I was a kid, sharks were all the rage. Jaws had come out, and I was way too young to see it, but I must have seen the preview on television a million times. And that was enough to get me reading every single shark book that I could get my hands on. Hammerheads, great whites, makos, tiger sharks ... I knew them all, as well as a thousand stories of people being mauled or devoured by them.

Twenty years later, surprise surprise, I am terrified of sharks. Not only at the ocean but in fresh water lakes and yes, pools, I swim tormented by images of sharks gliding toward me from behind. You'd be surprised at the stories I am able to visualize as I'm swimming in indoor pools -- sharks suddenly bursting up through large drains, or back there in the shadows (?) of the 7 foot deep pool all along, unnoticed when I first jumped in.

Suffice it to say, I spend more time on the beach than in the water, especially in the ocean, and I am actually pretty darn terrified to swim out too far. On a vacation to St. John's in the Caribbean, two days of snorkeling had me courageous enough to actually swim out to a boat docked 30-40 yards from shore. I was terribly proud of myself.

And I'm still terrified.

When I got back from our days in Gerroa, I found this email from my brother-in-law:

A photo for you:
Family on holiday in Australia when husband, wife and their 15 year old son go scuba diving. Son wanted a picture of his mum and dad in all their gear so he got the underwater camera. Dad realized as son took the photo, he looked like he was panicking. The son took the picture and swam to the surface and jumped into the boat. Mum and dad followed to see if he was OK. When the parents asked why he said 'there was a shark behind you.' The dad thought he was joking. When they got back to the hotel, they loaded the picture onto their laptop. This is what they saw. Notice how the shark is smiling. A true Kodak moment.

Here's the photo:

I'm sure the shot is a fake. I'm sure it is.

Even so, you're not going to catch me anywhere near the ocean anytime soon.

I hate my brother-in-law.

They Say It's Your Birthday

February brings two big birthdays in the McDermott clan. First, on this very day, February 6th, my nephew Jack Pontow (left) celebrates his fourth birthday. I understand Jack has been having lots of fun in the snow. One wonders if this picture of him moments before nailing his sisters with a snowball has a duplicate somewhere in childhood photographs of his father. I’m thinking yes…

And on the 10th, his great aunt Kathleen, my dad’s sister, once again turns 37. Aunt Kathleen is the director of the South Madison Coalition of the Elderly; she’s spent her whole life as a social worker working with elderly people, and we’re all very proud of the commitment she has kept all these years. (We also love her because she and my aunt Eileen really did spoil us rotten growing up. Every Star Wars figure I have (and oh, I have a lot of them…someday they’re going to be worth a lot of money you know!) dates back to her and my aunt Eileen.) Happy Birthday, Aunt Kathleen!

February appears to be scholars’ month on the birthday calendar, as well, particularly if you’re a theologian. Kevin Burke, dean at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, systematic theologian and editor of a book on the essential writings of Pedro Arrupe (former general of the Jesuits), turns 54 on the 21st. BC moral theologian Jim Keenan celebrates his on the 15th. And Stanley Marrow, scripture scholar at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, has a birthday of his own to celebrate on the 10th.

All three of these men were great teachers at Weston when I was studying theology there. Kevin led my class in a great year-long seminar on major themes of Christianity, like sin, grace, Jesus, the resurrection. Kevin can push you to rethink your position (and rewrite your paper!) like nobody’s business.

Jim Keenan taught a seminar on the foundations of moral theology that I go back to again and again as a priest. (I frequently recall his idea that the sins we really have to worry about are not the ones we’re confessing and which we regularly pay so much attention to, but the ones we’re ignoring, the ones we don’t see.)

And Stanley Marrow is quite simply one of the great gentlemen of the Society of Jesus. His readings of John and Paul always challenged and left you thinking both about the scriptures and their implications today for me. A member of the New England Province of the Jesuits and originally from Iraq, Stanley was supposedly once asked by a scholastic when did his family convert to Christianity. Stanley, who really is the image of graciousness, politely said that they’d always been Christian. But the student persisted, and persisted, until Stanley finally told him, while your ancestors were painting their faces blue and dancing naked in the woods, my family was already Christian. Or so the story goes… (May he forgive me for this picture of the Blue Man Group.)

Keeping up the streak of Moran birthdays, Shannon Moran, daughter of Tim and Mary Beth, turns 8 on the 2nd. Greg Lynch, my ordination classmate and first mass partner, turns 39 in Omaha on the 25th. And my vow classmate Pat Malone will be having a fiesta Dominican style on the 13th. His age has been classified by the Bush Administration; he wishes only to remind people that he’s one year younger than our classmate Greg O’Meara (above).

Everyone’s funny Valentine, Albert DiUlio, rings in a new year on the 14th. Jenny Deon, militant Buddhist and Mike Shashaty-worshipper, has her birthday on the 16th. (By the way, if she’s out there, Mike would like her to know that she still owes him a paper. If she doesn’t get it in soon, he really will have to lower her grade.)

And at America, it’s editor-in-chief birthday month, with both former editor Joe O’Hare (pictured left with former circulation assistant Nidia Augustin) and current editor Drew Christiansen celebrating, on the 12th and the 20th. (Tom Reese, Drew’s immediate predecessor as editor-in-chief, and also the guy who hired me (yes, blame him), celebrated his birthday last month on the 11th, and fellow former editor-in-chief George Hunt also had a birthday in January. It’s like the perfect storm of editorial birthdays.)

Happy Birthday to one and all!

Peel It Away

Ash Wednesday today over here. And it’s fun how a new place provides all new images to consider. Australia has a large tree known as the gum tree, part of a family of trees, the eucalyptus, which are found literally all over the continent. (According to Wikipedia, no continent is as characterized by a single genus of tree as Australia is by the eucalyptus.)

What’s notable about the gum tree is that every summer it loses all of its bark. All of it. Most trees need the bark to protect the tree. Remove it and the tree might easily die. But not the gum tree.

And it strikes me that somewhere in there might be a cool image to go into Lent with. We develop these outer coats – but this Lent what do we need to strip away? Where do we need to be a little more vulnerable? What needs to be laid bare?

You’ve had plenty of preaching from me the last few days. More fun soon.

PS If you’re wondering, as I was, we don’t get bubble gum from gum trees. The name is apparently a reference from the tons of sap these trees release from cuts in their bark. Bubble gum is made from sugar, corn syrup and a bunch of other things (including in many cases rubber…yum).

(By the way, today is also Chinese New Year, the beginning of a 15 day celebration for Chinese people around the world. A bunch of us are going to a big new year's day parade in Sydney Sunday. I'll post pictures then.)

Making an Election

A young woman protesting the war. New York City, Summer 2006.

Today is Super Tuesday in the United States, also known as Super-Duper Tuesday, Giga Tuesday, Mega Giga Tuesday, and Mega Giga Super Duper Califragalistituesday. 24 states across the country are holding primaries to nominate Democratic and Republican candidates for the office of president. As I write this, Americans in New York have already begun to cast their votes. It's possible (although given the closeness of the races, perhaps not likely) that today's results will reveal the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

In Australia Tuesday is just about over. While America arises we are on our way to bed. As I myself lay down tonight I thought back to the speech a skinny new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama gave at the Democratic Convention in 2004. Whether today he's the best candidate for the job of president is of course up to the American electorate; but what struck me then and now is his awareness, beyond candidates, elections and parties, of a spirit that seeks to divide us, to demonize us to one another, to isolate us from one another.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Shanell and Shavonna Stampley and cousin. Cabrini Green, Chicago, 1997.

Obama pointed to something similar in South Carolina last week:
Let me say this, South Carolina. What we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation.

It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon, a politics that tells us that we have to think, act and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us, the assumption that young people are apathetic, the assumption that Republicans won't cross over, the assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor and that the poor don't vote, the assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate, whites can't support the African-American candidate, blacks and Latinos cannot come together.

We are here tonight to say that that is not the America we believe in.
"In the end," he said in that speech, "we're not just against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we're also struggling with our own doubts, our own fears, our own cynicism."

Six months after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, February 2006.

In religious language, we talk about this temptation to demonize or despair as the evil spirit. It's that voice in our heads that whispers that those who think different, look different, act different can't be trusted, that there's nothing more important than winning, that the best we can hope for our lives is to protect what we each have, and ultimately, that the noble ideals of our youth are but a fool's fantasy.

It's not the only voice in our head, thank God, there are other spirits and desires which roam around within us. And at different times in our lives we come to moments, what Jesuits call "moments of election", in which we are asked to step back, listen and make a clear decision -- which is the voice of grace? Where is the hand of God? Where is my heart leading me?

The primaries today -- of course they're about Obama or Clinton, McCain or Romney. But whether you like Obama for president or not, I wonder if he isn't right, the real election to be made is not fundamentally about parties or generations, but about beliefs: Cynicism, or hope? Blame, or self-sacrifice? Powerlessness, or possibility?

Heather Sierra, Red Cloud Senior. Pine Ridge, SD. May, 2000.

Standing before any moment of election, it's good to remember what we ourselves have known, felt and seen, as that's where our wisdom is to be found. I've included with this blog photos, mostly of younger people I've met along the way, including the one below of three young immigrants on the Staten Island Ferry, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, because they help remind me of what is important, of whose needs and what dreams I want to stand for. But I'll end with what Obama himself recalled in South Carolina.
Here is what I know. I know that when people say we can't overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of that elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day, an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside the envelope. So don't tell us change isn't possible. That woman knows change is possible.

When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can't join together and work together, I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago. So don't tell us change can't happen.

When I hear that we'll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who is now devoted to educating inner city-children and who went out into the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don't tell me we can't change.

Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Ah! Bright Wings

I've returned from Gerroa, and I come bearing gifts. Our house there really is located right on that 7 Mile Beach that I mentioned before we left. And we had some beautiful, beautiful days. At the same time, it was amazing to me how the same beach could look so different at different times. So I thought I'd show some pictures, along with a poem by 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.

God's Grandeur
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.